HERSHEY, Pa. – When the AHL season began, Vitek Vanecek was the elder stateman of the team’s goalies. A second-round draft pick of the Capitals in 2014, Vanecek had spent two seasons with the Hershey Bears in the AHL coming into the 2018-19 season. With Pheonix Copley now up in the NHL as Washingotn’s backup goalie, the crease in Hershey seemingly belonged to Vanecek.
And yet, on opening night, it was Ilya Samsonov who got the start.
A second-round draft pick is very high for a goalie showing that the Caps thought very highly of Vanecek and his potential. Samsonov, however, was drafted in the first round by Washington the very next year and is widely regarded as the team’s top prospect.
Samsonov’s first season in North America saw him go to Hershey as one of the team’s two netminders. Two young goalies competing for playing time on the same team looking to one day make the NHL could have set up for a nasty rivalry within the team. But that’s not what happened.
Instead, Vanecek and Samsonov became friends over the course of their first season as teammates and worked extremely well together as the Bears’ formidable goalie tandem.
“He's good guy,” Vanecek said of Samsonov. “In the summer, I didn't know him. I just see him in World Juniors when he was playing. ... He's very good guy, he's good goalie.”
“We've been in a really good relationship,” Samsonov said through an interpreter. “We build really good relationship, like friendship.”
Much of the credit for their relationship belongs to first-year head coach Spencer Carbery who deftly handled the goalie tandem by evenly splitting the playing time even throughout the playoffs. There was no No. 1 and No. 2, there was no starter and backup. Instead, the goalies switched off every other and each seemingly made the most of their opportunities.
While Vanecek could have made a strong case to be the No. 1 coming into training camp, he took the situation in stride.
“Going into the year, I would have said that I think Vitek understood sort of the situation that Ilya Samsonov is coming here to play in Hershey is a top prospect,” Carbery said in January. “He understood all of that and I think he took it in a way of, OK, I need to know when I get an opportunity to play whether that's opening night, whether it's the next night, I want to prove to everybody in this organization and around the AHL and the NHL that I can be the guy and I'm going to push whether it's a first round, second round or a top prospect, I'm going to push whoever is my goaltending partner and that's kind of the way I think it started and Vitek had a great start.”
There was certainly an adjustment period for Samsonov who was new to the North American game. Hershey seemed to struggle with him as the team found itself in last place in January. As he began to turn things around, however, so did the team.
With back-to-back shutouts, Samsonov helped spring the team into a 17-game point streak that saved the season and helped Hershey go from last place to the playoffs. His complete turnaround helped salvage his numbers as he finished the season with a 2.70 GAA and .898 save percentage. Vanecek, meanwhile, was named the team’s representative for the AHL All-Star Game and completed an impressive season of his own with a 2.62 GAA and .907 save percentage. He appeared in 38 games, Samsonov in 37.
“We do what coaches ask us,” Samsonov said. “I think we did a pretty good job.”
Their success this season would not have been possible without the positive relationship they developed with one another.
“The cool thing between these two guys which I think I have grown to really appreciate and I've watched it and I keep kind of a close eye on how they interact is they pull for one another and they're very supportive of one another,” Carbery said. “They're very close when it comes to when they do their goalie drills, when they compete against shooters, they're rooting for one another.”
For Vanecek, it would have been very easy to feel slighted by the attention paid to Samsonov and him getting the opening night start. Instead, Vanecek has managed to keep a positive attitude about his season and about the Caps.
When asked if he felt frustrated over the excitement surrounding Samsonov’s future, Vanecek immediately shot that down.
“No,” he said. “Just focusing on me and just trying playing my best and then just trying help him. There is no frustration.”
With the season now over, Vanecek must await his future as he is a restricted free agent. Given his strong performance and how well he seemed to work with Samsonov, a return to Hershey seems all but guaranteed. It is a return that Vaencek himself said he would welcome.
“I want to stay here, just do my best and get to the NHL,” he said.
As for Samsonov, with his first North American season now under his belt expectations for the 22-year-old netminder will continue to grow. He recognizes that and said he needs to improve in all areas of his game.
When asked if he would be ready to step into an NHL game as early as next season, however, he did not hesitate to answer.
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